You Won’t Believe Where Some of These Expressions Come From

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Credit: David Blackwell/Flickr
Credit: Hydropeek/Flickr

We usually turn a blind eye to idioms, but we thought let’s bite the bullet and write an article all about these much uttered expressions and where they actually come from. Do note that some of these might be rather contentious, but we challenge you try and fact check the last 1000 or so years. Go on!

Bite The Bullet

Try and guess. I bet you can’t. Because, well, the imagery that’s conjured up just seems otherworldly. Or like something from the Matrix. But it’s not. It actually traces its roots to Victorian-era wartime medicine, when wounded soldiers were asked to bite on a bullet to distract from any pain during surgery. The earliest mention of this idiom can be tracked back to Rudyard Kipling’s The Light That Failed. We haven’t read it, though. So who knows if that’s true.

Raining Cats and Dogs

This idiom traces its history back to 1991, where a freak incident meant that Derby was absolutely pelted with pets. Actually, no, that’s a really stupid fib. The earliest mention of this expression appears in a Henry Vaughan poem in 1651; but etymologists argue about the origins. The most credible explanation is that it refers to Norse mythology, insomuch as that heavy rain is often depicted as cats, and the wind is depicted as dogs. Others claim that it harks back to a time when public sanitation in England was poor, so when it rained there would be dead animals washed up on the streets.

Give The Cold Shoulder

Giving someone the cold shoulder was actually rather customary in medieval England. It basically refers to the idea that you serve your guests a cold shoulder of beef or pork to signal that it was time for them to leave. It wouldn’t work on us though, just give us some piccalilli and leave us be with our sweet cold shoulder.

A Red Herring

Herrings usually develop a red colour when smoked. Oh that wasn’t explanation enough? Well, the smoked fish was traditionally used to train dogs to sniff out a prize or prey. The red herring would be the one they’d have to avoid in favour of their actual target.

Butter Someone Up

Mmm, butter. Sweet golden goddess who pleases my tongue and makes my arteries thick. Umm, this idiom, meaning to garner favour from someone, traces its history to Hindu tradition. Temple-goers were said to use butter to try to be looked upon kindly by their gods.

Caught Red-Handed

Oh, ye olde English law, you were a treasure. An old piece of legislation dictated that someone could be prosecuted for killing another’s animals, but only if they were seen to have blood on their hands, hence being caught red-handed. Grim.

Let The Cat Out Of The Bag

In old English markets, Del Boys’ ancestors would try and swindle the public. Instead of selling them valuable delicious piglets, they’d put cheap and smelly cats in bags. If the cat were to jump out of the bag then the whole gig would be up. Damn them.